Gaumont British Animation – A Great British Achievement

Ken Clark takes a detailed look at the animation studio where many top British animators got their start.

The original concept of Gaumont British Animation, a studio of sufficient size and capacity with which to challenge Disney’s supremacy, sounded exciting enough to tempt anyone with an ounce of ambition. According to 1. Arthur Rank it involved a three year programme costing an estimated £2,500,000. A shrewd financial gamble, one might have thought, but it was more than that. A deeply religious man, Rank genuinely wanted to provide much needed employment for ex-servicemen and women.

In 1944 Rank invited top Disney director David Hand to come to England, to organise the studio in the sleepy, exclusive village of Cookham on the river Thames. With an intensive training programme of paramount importance only the best people were good enough for the top positions, so Hand brought with him ace animator John Reed, Ray Patterson, and, to supervise the story department, Ralph Wright. Ralph formed a small unit including Douglas Low, a distant relation of the newspaper cartoonist Low. Low produced ‘roughs’ defining principal characters and plot outlines which were then subjected to brain storming sessions he called ‘ideating’.

Left to right: Ralph Ayres, David Hand, Pat Griffin, Brian O’Hanlon, Henry Stringer and Bert Felstead.

A group from GB Instructional Films came along; and Reginald Jeffryes was co-opted as instructor in the newly formed animation school; Ken Hardy, fresh out of the Navy, left his Portsmouth studio behind him, and Bill Traylor a former camera operator there, followed him. Alan Oaksley was later put in charge of the clean-up room, a most important part of the operation because many of the key animators worked with a fast and loose style without rubbing out unwanted lines, often concentrating on the movement of mass rather than waste valuable time producing finished, finely executed drawings. It was the clean-up artists job to pick out the correct lines on each pencilled animation – therein lay their skill.

The top man from GB Instructional was a director fondly addressed as ‘String’ by his friends and associates – a nickname Henry Stringer accepted in good part. He was no stranger to some of those about him. He had learned his trade back in 1939 when the outbreak of war resulted in an overnight lack of demand for advertising art.

Looking around for a new vocation Stringer found an ally living next door. His neighbour was Donald Carter, director for GB Instructional Films, and as a result of his recommendation he joined Reg Jeffryes unit at Diagram Films, in Bruce Woolffs residential home town, Harpenden. Woolff owned the studio which provided animation services for GBI. Jeffryes headed a small group consisting of his wife and a young lad waiting for his call-up papers, Ken Hardy. Henry Stringer came in as his replacement.

However, Ken’s call-up was deferred for a year due to the demand for diagrammatic inserts and instructional films for the Army, Navy and Air Force, and for the British Council. The work did not require full animation, consisting in the main of simplified line drawings with much of the action being executed in reverse under the camera. Letters, words and whole sections of composite drawings were removed and pre-drawn lines either scraped or painted out ½” each exposure. Gunnery instructionals called for the use of two dimensional animated cut-outs of breech mechanisms and recoil systems.
By the end of the war GBA had become part of the Rank Organisation and made religious films for 1. Arthur. With the declaration of peace came a desire to expand and the experts from the USA were brought in to start GB Animation. When Hand arrived, Henry Stringer was in charge of GB Instructional and when they moved to Cookham to set up operations Frank Wells, brother of H.G. Wells, the writer, became liaison man and producer.

The two animation blocks had been erected during the war; life for the majority must have seemed like ‘home from home’ without the strict Service discipline. They were divided into scores of compartments with separate schools for trainee animators, and for girls learning to trace and paint. As well as the production units for entertainment cartoons and Henry’s Musical Paint-box shorts, over in Jeffryes’ and Ken Hardy’s area operated a technical, and a medical team where virtually everything they did was in the nature of a diagrammatic insert. Les Orriss worked here. His immediate superior was Louis Dahl, Roald Dahl’s brother, who had come to Moor Hall direct from TRE Malvern.

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